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Fears about retirement spur Congress to look at a menu of options

WASHINGTON—The American dream of a secure retirement appears in jeopardy this summer, and lawmakers are scrambling to find answers lest they be sent into early retirement themselves.

Three forces are merging to create anxiety: fears about private pensions sparked by a default at United Airlines, frustration over 401(k) accounts invested in a stagnant stock market and President Bush's crusade to convince people that Social Security faces a funding crisis.

The result: The number of people expecting to have to work past age 65 has nearly tripled in the last 10 years, according to a recent Gallup Poll.

The solution? People aren't buying Bush's proposal to partly privatize Social Security—in the country or the Congress. But Congress is moving ahead on several fronts that could converge into a broad overhaul aimed at shoring up Social Security, pensions and personal savings.

"By putting them together, I believe it actually speeds up the process," Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said recently. "Instead of having three highly charged partisan fights, we'll only, unfortunately, have one," he added with a laugh.

An accomplished dealmaker and chairman of the committee in the House of Representatives that must approve changes to retirement-related tax law, Thomas has yet to find the blend of proposals that will win majority support from Republicans, let alone from a bipartisan coalition.

Bush's main proposal remains stalled with little prospect for approval. He wants to allow Americans to divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. Most polls show little support, and Republicans in Congress signal that they don't have enough votes to pass the proposal.

A key Republican House subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., signaled last week he is ready to negotiate a solution without Bush-style accounts if necessary to get a deal.

"I'm willing to sit down and talk about a plan that would not include diverting Social Security into private accounts," he said in an interview. "Maybe funding the accounts from general revenues rather than a carve out of Social Security."

But Democrats refused anew to talk until Bush drops his call for diverting Social Security taxes into privately managed accounts. And passing any form of private accounts with just Republican votes is a "heavy lift," McCrery said.

The menu of other possibilities includes these basic elements: creating a new, tax-subsidized, personally managed account apart from Social Security; raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits to save the system money; cutting benefits for the same reason; raising the amount of salary taxed for Social Security; creating new regulations for private pension programs to help ensure their solvency; and simplifying and expanding tax breaks for personal retirement saving.

The political calculus needed to combine them into a single legislative package that could win approval from Congress and Bush remains difficult for Thomas. Dropping the idea of partly privatizing Social Security might get Democrats to the bargaining table, for example, but it would send some conservative Republicans packing.

Still, the political consequence of failure is clear. Americans wouldn't like it.

"There is anxiety growing," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. His suburban Minnesota district is home to thousands of Northwest Airlines employees who fear the company, to remain competitive, will follow United and US Airways in defaulting on its pension plan.

"We've had very visible stories about United Airlines and US Airways. Before that we had a spectacular failure at Bethlehem Steel. There is uncertainty about these traditional, defined-benefit pension plans that were such an important part of retirement security for many Americans. And there's a growing awareness that Social Security is not in as good as shape as people would like."

Companies with traditional pension plans are $354 billion short of what they need to make promised payments to future retirees, officials with the government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. told Congress recently. Airline pension funds are prominent among those at risk. So are the auto industry's, currently about $60 billion short.

Most people with pensions that default will still get checks from a government agency. But many will be less than promised. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which insures private pensions, is itself short, between $23 billion and $100 billion, of what it needs to cover failed plans.

Kline is one of several Republicans who propose a set of changes, including requiring corporations to fully fund their pension plans and raising the insurance premiums they pay to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Analysts differ on the impact. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said raising the premiums would make it more likely that corporations would drop pension plans.

The Education and Workforce Committee plans to start writing pension legislation as early as this week. It could be wrapped into the broad retirement package that Thomas envisions. That depends on how quickly Thomas can cobble together a compromise plan, if he can.

"That's an approach that could very possibly build a broad coalition for reforms both in Social Security and other critical areas of retirement security like pensions and IRAs, 401(k)s and health care," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. "If the House would be able to put together something that was comprehensive, it might provide a framework and build some momentum for a broader bill in the Senate."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., agreed that a comprehensive approach offered the best chance at solving several problems with retirement security.

"We can't solve this with just a piece of the puzzle," said Conrad, a senior Democrat on the Senate Budget and Finance committees. "Social Security is one piece. You can't get from where we are now to where we need to be with one piece of the puzzle. You have to have much more in play."

But he cautioned against expecting anything so big to come together this year.

"Certainly not," he said. "An enormous amount of work is going to have to be done to put together a comprehensive proposal that really makes sense and can withstand scrutiny."

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For more on private pensions, go to http://www.pbgc.gov.

For more on Social Security, go to http://www.ssa.gov.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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